Ethiopia: The Confused Federation


Yonatan Fessha

EURAC Research

A few months ago, Isaias Afeworki, President of the Eritrean government, received delegates from Ethiopia. This would not make big news as receiving dignitaries usually forms part of the itinerary of a head of state. But it is still a major news and, one may argue, understandably so. These are two countries that have been in state of war for the last 20 years. But there was another reason why the visit should attract unusual attention. It was not the delegates of the national government that were paying a visit to the Eritrean President. It was a delegation of the Amhara State Government, one of the nine state governments that make up the Ethiopian federation. They asked the Eritrean President to visit the Amhara State. Last week, the Eritrean President returned the favor by visiting the state.

This is not the only act of a state government that recently drew unusual attention. It has been a busy few months for some of the state governments. Earlier in the year, the President of Oromia, the largest state in the Ethiopian federation, was in the Eritrean capital, negotiating a peace deal agreement with a rebel force that was fighting for the self-determination rights of the Oromo People. A week after that, the delegates of the Amhara state government were in the same capital negotiating a peace deal with another rebel force that claim to fight for the right of the Amhara people. This week, the President of Oromia signed what looks like a peace agreement with one of the rebel forces marking the end of hostilities. There were no indications that the leaders and members of these two state governments were acting on behalf of the national government.  

A few months ago, another state government was on the news when it arrested 40 fully armed men that arrived in its capital. Apparently, they are members of the Federal Police and the state government was not sure why they were coming to the state. They arrested them on the ground that they entered the state ‘without the permission’ of the state government. The federal force, according to  the state government, was “unnecessary since there was nothing that is out of control for the state government nor the state government requested help from the Federal government.” “We had to communicate with the Federal government to figure out why they came to [the state] and were made to stay until we reach common understanding with the Federal government,” the official added. The implication, it seems, is that the Federal Police can enter the territories of state government only under limited circumstances and often with the permission of a state government.

Exercising autonomy?

The actions of the state government might seem a departure from the recent past where state governments, despite their constitutional powers, were simply acting as implementing agents of the federal government. The events might be easily interpreted as indications of state governments coming to their own and asserting their autonomy, vowing to no longer serve as the administrative arm of the federal government. And that would have been a very good development. Unfortunately, that is not what is happening. What we are witnessing is state governments blurring the constitutional responsibilities of federal and state governments. They are probably violating the constitution and acting on matters that are normally left to the national government.

In most federal countries, foreign affairs is a business left to the national government. Subnational governments cannot enter into a relationship with other countries. Of course,  subnational governments in some federal systems are increasingly given a say when the national government enters into multilateral commitments that have the capacity to affect powers that are left to subnational governments. In some countries, subnational governments may even have treaty making powers and might be part of the national delegation that represent the country in some international organizations. Those are, however, the exceptions. The rule remains that foreign affairs are the competences of the federal government. Ethiopia is no exception. The powers and functions of the Federal Government listed under Article 51 of the Constitution includes foreign relations. When the Amhara state government invites and receives the President of Eritrea, it is engaging in foreign affairs, thereby intruding into the sphere of the national government. Of course, the federal Prime Minister travelled to the state to receive the Eritrean President. That was probably done to attach a badge of federal affairs to an event that was originally conceived as an affair of the state government.

The same is true with national defense. That is usually the exclusive responsibility of national governments, including in Ethiopia as per Article 51 of the Constitution. That obviously includes declaring a war and making a peace deal. The leaders of state governments negotiating a ceasefire and signing peace agreement is again an instance of state governments exercising another function that belongs to the national government. After all, those rebel forces were not waging a war against state governments. They were fighting the national army. Even if the state governments were acting on behalf of the national government, it is not clear why the state governments were chosen to make the negotiation rather than officials of the federal government. They could have, of course, joined as members of the negotiating team. It was odd to watch the Minister of Foreign Affairs sitting next to a President of state government as junior member of the delegation. 

Furthermore, it is not accurate to suggest that the Federal Police can enter into the territories of a state government only under exceptional circumstances. That is confusing the intervention powers of the federal government with the run of the mill responsibilities of the federal government. It is true that it is only under limited circumstances that the federal government can intervene to take over, wholly or partially, responsibilities that are normally left to state governments. In addition to those intervention powers, however, the federal government has its own powers on a wide range of matters that require it to operate across the territories of state governments. After all, the power of the federal government is not defined by territory but by functional areas. And, according to Article 51 of the Constitution, the federal government is authorized to enact and enforce criminal law. The federal government does not require the permission of the state government to arrest a suspect in federal criminal investigation. Courtesy and effective criminal law enforcement strategy might require coordination and information exchange with relevant state officials. But that is not the same as requesting permission.

The unhealthy federation

Yet these actions of the state governments are not the real problems. What is worrying is the fact that these are symptoms of the unhealthy state of affairs in which the federation finds itself. They reveal the serious tension that characterizes the Ethiopian federation. The visit to Asmara by the Amhara state government is not necessarily motivated by the desire to promote harmony between the two countries as it is by the desire to score political points against another state government. The action of the state government that arrested members of the Federal Police is also an indication of the mistrust that has developed between the federal government and the state government. The mistrust has further deepened this week with the Tigray state government accusing the federal government ‘of ethnic crackdown’. What is more alarming is the war of words that is going on between the Amhara and Tigray State Governments. One may even easily describe the situation as a state of war. When one takes into account the fact that these are state governments that do not only have a bureaucracy and the state machinery to act as an independent force but also command armed militia in a form of special police force, it is evident that a clear and present danger is hanging over the Ethiopian federation. The situation is compounded by the absence of an intergovernmental mechanism that can facilitate dialogue and the peaceful resolution of intergovernmental disputes

Towards true federalism or confederation?

To be exact, these are better days for the Ethiopian federation. The major political shift that followed the three years of protest have brought to death (or at least severely weakened) democratic centralism that relegated state authorities to implementers of the federal government. As a result, there are plenty of signs of a federal system that is coming to life, albeit, sometimes, with undesirable consequences. The state governments, in particular the large state governments, are increasingly asserting their powers and, to a certain extent, acting independently of the national government. This is palpable for anyone that takes the time to watch the TV stations owned by the state governments.

As to whether the opening of the democratic space and the newly found autonomy that the state governments are asserting is leading to constitutional federalism, there is no clear answer as yet. The intervention of the federal government in the State of Somali that led to the removal of the state government seems to represent a continuity of the era of a federal government that is leading from the centre . So is the resignation of some of the leaders of another state government after being asked publicly by the federal Prime Minister to resign from their position in state governments, suggesting again that accountability of state governments still runs back to the federal government rather than the state council to which they are politically accountable. The leadership of the ruling party of yet another state was in the Capital this week, meeting the Prime Minister, and have agreed to change the leadership of their state government.  It seems to depend on the state government and its political position within the ruling party and the federation. What is clear, however, is that it is no longer possible for the federal government to easily dictate and interfere in the affairs of some of the state governments in the way that previous federal authorities have done. A de facto asymmetry is probably taking root in the Ethiopian federation.

The days when Ethiopia is a federation in name only might be coming to an end soon. But this must not come at the expense of constitutional federalism. The federal government must find a way to convince state governments not to continue the blurring of responsibilities between the two levels of governments lest the country ends up with a de facto confederation. And that is not necessarily farfetched. After all, most of the state governments command an armed force, and some are conducting foreign relations.

Yonatan Fessha is a Marie-Curie Fellow at EURAC Research, Bolzano/Bozen, Italy.

Suggested Citation: Yonatan Fessha, ‘Ethiopia: The Confused Federation’ IACL-AIDC Blog (23 November 2018)